Sunday 17 February 2019


The mid-1500s rogue (and cheaper) edition of Mishneh Torah by the Giustiniani Printing House.



The printing press had just been invented. In Italy, newly established printing houses were vying with each other for a share in a very lucrative market. The printing of Hebrew books was no exception. 

In this article, we will look at the inside story behind what appeared to be the innocent printing of an early edition the of 12th- century Rambam’s Mishneh Torah, by Rabbi Meir Katzenellenbogen, known as the Maharam of Padua in the mid-16th-century.

I have drawn from the research of Professor Neil Weinstock Netanel[1] and also refer the Reader to a previous article Daniel Bomberg – The Story behind the Tzuras haDaf.

Additionally, I shall suggest a possible context to show how this story played out against the classical backdrop of tension between the rationalist followers of Maimonides (known as Rambam 1135-1204) and the mystics who followed the Kabbalah.


In 1550, the Maharam of Padua (1482-1564) invests his own money and effort in preparing the text of Rambam’s Mishneh Torah – and writes a commentary on it together with his son. He then has it printed by a Christian printing house in Italy, known as the Bragadini Press. He does this because Italian Jews are not allowed to own printing presses.

Meanwhile, the Bragadini Press discovers that a rival company, the Giustiniani Press had copied the Maharam’s commentary without permission, undercut the price, and - for the cheaper price - even offered a criticism of his commentary!

The Maharam of Padua, understandably upset and faced with a financial loss from his investment (and after getting no support from the Italian Rabbinate) writes to a relative in Poland, the famous R. Moshe Isserless (known as Ramo[2]) in an early attempt at creating some form of copyright protection.[3]

R. Isserless, in response, forbids the purchase of the rival Giustiniani’s publication - on pain of excommunication - until Bragadini’s stocks had been sold out.


That is the quintessence of the story. 

However, lurking behind the scenes, there may have been another factor at play here which appears to have been ignored by many historians:

Both Maharam and R. Moshe Isserless were rationalists and loyal to Rambam.

Professor Netanel makes this point:

“The Maimonidean controversy continued to reverberate in the sixteenth century, with Katzenellenbogen and Isserles serving as leading proponents of Maimonides’ rationalism.

Katzenellenbogen virulently opposed the propagation of the mystical teachings of the Kabbalah.

And due to his intellectual prowess and commitment to the study of science, Isserles came to be known as the ‘Maimonides of Polish Jewry.’ ”
In 1558, the Maharam signed two bans against the study of Kabbalah[4]. He also opposed the printing of the Zohar[5].

As for R. Moshe Isserles, although he was well versed in Kabbalah, he also studied history and Aristotle (which he said he learned from Rambam’s Guide for the Perplexed). When another relative of his, Maharshal rebuked him for basing some of his rulings on Aristotle, he replied that ‘it is better to occupy oneself with philosophy than to err through Kabbalah.’[6]

On R. Isserless’ tombstone is written the epithet: “From Moses [Maimonides] to Moses [Isserless] there was none like Moses.” This was a not so subtle crib on the same epithet found on Rambam’s tomb.

Clearly, the Maharam and R. Isserless were supporters of Rambam’s philosophy.


Having given some context to the rivalry, it would be interesting to explore just who was financing the cheaper edition of the fourteen volumes of Mishneh Torah by the Giustiniani Press which contained the additional bonus of a criticism of the Maharam, and whose commentary had now been moved to the back of the publication[7].

The reason why the Maharam chose Bragadini over Giustiniani in the first place is generally described as ‘unknown’.[8]

I would suggest a possible reason as to why the Maharam may have chosen Bragadini over Giustiniani:[9]


Could this saga have been part of the ongoing feud between the Kabbalists and the Rambamists, with the Kabbalists financing or at least encouraging the rival Giustiniani Press? Had Giustiniani just printed a cheaper edition, one could put it down to competition as he was known to have adopted cutthroat tactics in his business affairs. At one stage he put both the Bragadini and even the Bomberg printing houses out of business.

Giustiniani’s printers-mark had an image of a depiction of the Temple in Jerusalem over which in an unrolled scroll, appeared the words, “The glory of this latter House will be greater than that of the first,”[10] alluding to his vision of his Printing House overshadowing the other Printing Houses.
However, the addition of the criticism of the Maharam, the relegation of his commentary to the back of the work, and the fact that many Italian rabbis did not support the Maharam - may imply some further ideological agenda in addition to commercial ‘sour grapes’.

In fact, when Giustiniani published his rival edition, he wrote that certain unnamed ‘leading scholars’ had convinced him to hurriedly put out a better edition of the Mishneh Torah as opposed to the ‘second-grade’ Bragadini edition by ‘one rabbi from Padua[11] who longed to stand among the greats.’

Also (perhaps coincidence or perhaps relevant), in 1545 the very first work to be printed by Giustiniani was Nachmanides’ commentary on the Torah which has been described as “...basically a mystical work against Maimonides...[whose writings] he and his colleagues believe to be sheer heresy.”[12]

By contrast, Bragadini’s first printed work was Rambam’s Mishneh Torah, and more tellingly, in 1551 he even printed Rambam’s controversial rationalist writings of The Guide for the Perplexed.[13] This, again, may show the general persuasion of those behind the publishing house. 


One must also consider the historical reality at that time:

The Spanish Inquisition resulted in the expulsion of Jews from Spain, just decades earlier, in 1492. This triggered a mass exodus of Jews from Western and Central Europe and by 1550, the central and northern Italian peninsula had become home to tens of thousands of Jewish refugees, and was virtually the only part of Western Europe where Jews remained.

Many of the Jews would have brought with them their mystical bias and strong Kabbalistic traditions from Spain. It is obvious that these tensions would have played out in Italy when they confronted people like the Maharam, who had banned the mystical Zohar.


Furthermore, Christians were showing interest in Jewish mysticism [See Kotzk Blog 221 for how Elihayu Bachur began teaching Kabbalah to Cardinals.] and, as we saw during the earlier Maimonidean controversies, Jews and Christians sometimes formed expedient alliances against the Jewish rationalists who followed Rambam. [For more see: The Maimonidean Controversies.]

This too may have had some bearing on why the issue of the rival printing presses eventually found its way to the Pope.

One account says Giustiniani told the Pope that Rambam’s book was “a blasphemous work that should be banned for its defamations of the true Christian religion.”[14] It is highly probable that Rambam’s rationalism (which included a non-literal way of understanding angels, and which had no room for the notion of evil spirits and demons etc.) may have been considered blasphemous even by the Church.


After R. Isserless had issued his verdict which effectively banned Giustinani’s publication of Mishneh Torah, the latter retaliated by going to the Pope for support. Giustiniani countered R. Isserless’ edict by encouraging apostate Jews to denounce the Maharam’s commentary as “objectionable to the Church.[15] The Pope appointed six cardinals to oversee the investigation.

Both Bragadini and Giustiniani were represented by Jews who had converted to Christianity, and unfortunately, the tribunal soon ‘deteriorated to a general attack on the Talmud’.[16]


The ruling of the panel was to burn all copies of the Bavli and Yerushalmi Talmud! All copies of the Talmud had to be surrendered within eight days. And for the next ten years, no Hebrew books were to be permitted to be printed in Venice.

On Rosh Hashana 1553, the edict was carried out and all copies of the Talmud were burned in Rome, and later elsewhere as well.


Of course, historically, this was not the only example of the Church burning Jewish books. If ever there was a case of history repeating itself, this must be it:

Three hundred years earlier, the Talmud was also burned, although not in Italy but in France. After Rambam’s death in the early 1200s, “the ‘Guide for Perplexed’ was...burned publicly by Jews and non-Jews. There were Jews in France who informed against the book to the Catholic Church, saying that it made slights against Christianity.”[17]

At first, the Jews themselves burned Rambam’s books and just ten years later, in 1242, the Church burned all available copies of the Talmud. This incident was sparked by Rambam's work, the Guide for the Perplexed, which had been translated into French. [See The Dangers of Translating Hebrew Texts.]

This is an earlier example of how anti-Maimonidean Jews had denounced the writings of Rambam to the Christians in France which resulted in Jews burning manuscripts of Maimonides on the same square as, a decade later, the Talmud was then burned by the Dominican Christians.

Clearly, this was a ‘tried and tested’precedent for Jews to convince the Church that Rambam’s writings were too rational and too heretical even for the Church.

At that time, R. Yona Gerondi (1180-1263), the teacher of Rashba and a cousin to the father of modern Kabbalah Nachmanides, went to the Christians - the Franciscans and then the Dominicans - pleading:
“Look, most of our people are heretics and unbelievers, because they were duped by R. Moses of Egypt [Maimonides] who wrote heretical books. 

You exterminate heretics, exterminate ours too.”[18]


Back to Italy in the mid-1500s: The devastation was such that after the Italian burning of the Talmud, the Maharam of Padua wrote that people should not rely on his opinion anymore because there were no copies of Talmud left for him to reference.[19]

In Italy, as a consequence of the burning of the Talmud, the emphasis of Torah study now changed to other areas where books were available and still permitted to be printed. These included Halachik works and, of relevance to our discussion: “The period also saw a rise in the study of Kabbalah, the first editions of its main sefarim appearing at that time, although the question of its study was a matter of fierce controversy among the Rabbanim of Italy.”[20]


Whether by design or accident, the long term effects of the Bragadini-Giustiani controversy resulted in a victory for the mystics, with Kabbalah rising to a position of pre-eminence.

Taking all this into consideration, it is difficult to accept that the Bragadini-Giustiani conflict - usually just described as a business deal gone wrong - was disconnected from the deeper and latent conflict between the mystics and the rationalists. 

[1] See: Maharam of Padua v. Giustiniani; the Sixteenth-Century Origins of the Jewish Law of Copyright
[2] Ramo wrote the notes (haMapah) to the Shulchan Aruch of R. Yosef Karo.
[3] According to some opinions, rivalry over the Mishneh Torah was not the cause of the conflict, since three years had passed since its printing. Instead, it was over the rival editions of the Talmud from these two printers.
According to another opinion, the dispute was over ‘anticipated rival editions of the Talmud by these printers.” (Edict Ordering the Confiscation and Burning of the Talmud, Library of JTS.)
[4] Shlomo Tal, Meir ben Isaac Katzenellenbogen, in Encyclopedia Judaica.
[5] In Defence of Preachers by David Darshan, p. 17.
[6] Responsa No. 7. However, more recently, another aspect of R. Isserles’ complex personality has surfaced with the publication from a manuscript of his commentary to Zohar. Also, he often quoted Kabbalistic sources for his Halacha and wrote that the “words of the Zohar... were given at Sinai” (Mishor 2010 p. 50.)
[7] Further studies in the Making of the Early Hebrew Book, by Marvin J. Heller, p. 308.
[8] See The Printers Feud and the Burning of the Talmud, by R. Akiva Aaronson. Or according to Netanel: “When Katzenellenbogen decided to publish a new annotated edition of the Mishneh Torah, he approached Giustiniani to handle the printing, but, for whatever reason, the two did not come to terms.” [Emphasis mine.]
See also The Makers of Hebrew Books in Italy, by David Werner Amram, p.255: “For reasons unknown to us Giustiniani did not satisfy the rabbi...” [Emphasis mine.]
[9] This is pure speculation as I have not seen this recorded anywhere. However, most of the writers (excluding Netanel), have been historians and obviously not interested in the hashkafic relevance of connecting this story to the ongoing Maimonidean conflict - which was so fundamental in influencing the future of Judaism, up to this very day.
[10] Chaggai 2:9.
[11] The Ramo had referred to the Maharam as the ‘Rabbi of Padua’.
[12] Jewish Virtual Library: Maimonidean Controversy.
[13]Titolo: Tracing the Hebrew Book Collection of the Venice Ghetto, p.31.

[14] Stop the Presses, by Eliezer Segal. See also: The Venetian Ghetto: The History of a Persecuted Community, by Riccardo Calimani, Chapter 7.

[15] Gardens and Ghettos, Jewish Museum, p. 250.  The ‘deterioration’ from antagonism towards Mishneh Torah to the Talmud may be explained by the fact the Mishneh Torah was effectively a summary of the Talmud – and the two might have become regarded as two sides of the same coin.
[16] Further studies... Ibid.
[17] Jewish History, Maimonides, by R. Berel Wein.
[18]  Iggerot Kena’ot III, 4c. (Leipzig 1859).
[19] She’erit Yosef 1.
[20] The Printers Feud...ibid.

No comments:

Post a Comment